The Greater the Effort, the Sweeter the Reward (and the Harder the Loss)

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Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

Think of something in your life that you worked extremely hard for and got it. Your dream job? A salvaged relationship? An audition for the part that paved your road to success?

Consider how it felt when you got it. Pretty darn good, right? After all, you worked hard for that accomplishment. Maybe you spent years working for it – maybe your whole life. That’s probably why it tastes so sweet when you finally get it.


Now think of something in your life that you wanted in the worst way, worked very hard for it, and came up empty. Admission to the one and only school you wanted to attend? A chance to spend your life with a true love? Maybe even a baby?

Try to remember how it felt when you knew it wasn’t going to happen. Probably pretty awful. Devastating, actually. You spent your time, your energy, and your heart and soul trying to make something happen, and it didn’t. For whatever cruel reason, you suffered a loss instead of a reward.

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No wonder we feel such intense emotions after expending great effort for the things we want in life. It turns out that our brains are actually activated in ways that support this notion. In a fascinating study that appeared in Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience, 28 individuals were provided monetary rewards for correctly completing math problems of varying difficulty. They were also asked to give back some of the money to charity in order to facilitate a “loss.” Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was conducted on the subjects in order to witness brain activity during the process.

The recorded brain activity showed that the subjects were excited about monetary rewards only when the math problems were difficult. Similarly, the subjects were bummed about having to give money away only when the money was earned by completing difficult problems. In other words, the amount of effort the individuals put into completing the problems seemed to modulate the intensity of their responses, whether or not they experienced a reward or a loss.

I liked this study. My only beef with it regards the use of money to facilitate feelings of reward or loss. While money might be a potent motivator for many individuals, I am optimistic that for most of us, much richer rewards exist in life than the mighty dollar. These include peace, wellness, security, and most of all, love. Gaining or losing these things yields a far greater impact than what was demonstrated in this study.

Still, the authors provided us with a window into the workings of effort, loss, and reward. On a personal note, I can’t help but feel that great effort is often well worth the trouble, regardless of the outcome. In most cases, great effort makes us better people.


Lallement, J. H., Kuss, K., Trautner, P., Weber, B., Falk, A., & Fliessbach, K. (2012). Effort increases sensitivity to reward and loss magnitude in the human brain. Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience, Advance Online Access. DOI: 10.1093/scan/nss147

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